Friday, September 29, 2006

Will the Iraq "firestorm" consume the Republicans?

I scribbled intensely, as torrents of Defeatocrat pessimism fell into my notebook.

This happened last night in Philadelphia, at a forum on national security sponsored by the World Affairs Council. A speaker on stage was saying all kinds of dire downbeat stuff about Iraq, openly contradicting the sunnier talking points uttered during campaign ’06 by the President of the United States. For instance, on the topic of ever-spiraling violence in Iraq:

“I think we’re about to witness the great Shiite revenge…We’ve got a real firestorm brewing (thanks to) the hell that’s going to be unleashed as the Shiites start to eat the Sunnis…(The Bush administration’s) huge mistake was to underestimate the Sunnis’ willpower (to launch an insurgency)” -- and that insurgency in turn has triggered the Shiite revenge.

Well, that clinched it for me: There is now a rough national consensus that conditions in Iraq war are far worse than the White House chooses to admit. The source of those remarks was not a Democrat, or some liberal gloom-and-doomer who might be ripe for caricature in the GOP message shop; the speaker was Reuel Marc Gerecht, a former CIA specialist on the Middle East and Bush supporter who worked at the Project for a New American Century, one of the neoconservative think tanks that pioneered the idea of toppling Saddam Hussein.

In political terms, how can the Republicans expect to retain control of Congress in the ’06 elections when there seems to be no way to spin Iraq as an upbeat GOP achievement? And when even the 16 spy agencies that work for Bush have authored an intelligence report that flatly disputes Bush’s declaration, in a speech three weeks ago, that “we’re on the offense against terrorists on every battlefront”?

Indeed, Gerecht’s words were further confirmation that the partially-leaked National Intelligence Estimate was really not telling us much of anything that we didn’t already know. Gerecht knows that Iraq is a firestorm (as opposed to the predicted “cakewalk”) in the heart of the Middle East. A majority of the American people know that the Iraq war has made us less safe, having already expressed this sentiment in countless ’06 polls. And officials from the nation’s foreign-policy establishment - of all ideological persuasions - know that the war has been a disaster, having already voiced that opinion this summer with Foreign Policy magazine.

One of the people who helped produce that magazine’s “Terrorism Index” survey was Joe Cirincione, a national security expert, former congressional staffer, former director for nonproliferation issues at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and now a senior vice president at the Center for American Progress (a Democratic think tank). He too spoke at the World Affairs Council event, and shared the survey statistics: Of the 100 top foreign-policy people, 86 percent say the world is more dangerous for Americans today than it was five years ago; 87 percent said that the war in Iraq has negatively affected our ability to fight global terrorism; 84 percent disagreed with Bush’s core claim that we’re winning the war on terror.

Most significant was the sentiment among the conservative experts: 81 percent said the world is more dangerous today for Americans; 61 percent said that Iraq has hurt our efforts; and 71 percent disagreed with Bush’s core claim.

“I don’t think we understood what we were reaping when we went into Iraq,” Cirincione said. “Just as the British didn’t (when they occupied Iraq in 1919). We are going to reap the whirlwind, and the administration doesn’t have a plan to deal with it.”

Bush tried yesterday to recoup, by again seeking to paint the Democrats as “the party of cut and run,” but his problem is that a plurality of likely ’06 voters now regard the withdrawal of troops as an attractive option. Here’s a new poll: by 46 percent to 36 percent, voters prefer a congressional candidate who wants us to get out of Iraq, over a candidate who wants us to stay. And the percentage spread is even more pronounced among independent swing voters, 50 to 25. The sponsor of this poll? Fox News.

And next week could be even worse for the president. Bob Woodward’s new book about Bush and Iraq (State of Denial, which says it all) gets the big publicity rollout on Sunday in The Washington Post and on 60 Minutes. One story today, citing the book, reports that Bush, eight months into the war, was still refusing to accept the reality of an anti-American insurgency; and that when weapons inspector David Kay tried to warn the White House, during the first summer of the war, that there were no WMDs, he was reportedly told, “Don’t tell anyone this. This could be upsetting.”

The new material from Woodward – who, until now, was often dismissed by Bush critics as an administration lackey – will play out for many days. So will the growing dispute over whether a new NIE, dealing only with Iraq, which has been in the works since the beginning of August, should be released before the election, or, as the administration prefers, should be released next January. All these furors will spark fresh questions, in the heat of an election season, over whether voters should entrust the Iraq cleanup to the same party that made the mess. Indeed, even now, some of the GOP incumbents don’t seem sufficiently enlightened. As evidence, I give you Mississippi Sen. Trent Lott, speaking yesterday:

“Why do Sunnis kill Shiites? How do they tell the difference? They all look the same to me.”

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Is he or isn't he? A retro '90s debate

The flap over Bill Clinton’s Fox News flareup has now entered its fifth day, and in some ways I see it as a perversely nostalgic exercise, a return to the days when Americans of all ideological persuasions spent a fair bit of time trying to fathom and explain the president’s psyche.

And here we are again, this time debating whether Clinton was faking his indignation last Sunday when he railed against Fox News, accused host Chris Wallace of engineering “a conservative hit job” against him, as well as smirking at him. Was he genuinely and spontaneously angry at Wallace for asking him what was, quite frankly, a journalistically legitimate question about his failed pursuit of Osama bin Laden – or was he just acting in cold calculation, seeking merely to rally Democratic voters, employing the legendary skills that ought to be taught to every student at the Actors Studio?

In other words, it’s the old question visited anew: how authentic is this guy, anyway? There are apparently two schools of thought:

Bill Clinton, master thespian. People in this camp believe that he knew exactly what he was doing. William Kristol, the conservative commentator and Iraq war promoter, says: “Bill Clinton is a smart and calculating politician….(His spouse) has been having problems with the left wing of the Democratic party. With this interview, Bill Clinton has the entire left wing of the Democratic party rallying to him. Some of this solidarity can presumably be transferred to Hillary.”

Newt Gingrich, who frequently sparred with Clinton during his days as House Speaker, tells ABC News, “I think that as the most experienced professional in the Democratic Party, he didn’t walk onto that set and suddenly get upset. He probably decided in advance he was going to pick a fight with Chris Wallace. I think as a calculated political decision, it’s reasonably smart.”

Bill Clinton, authentic inner loon. People in this camp believe that the former president was betraying his true self, the self he normally keeps hidden from public view. For instance, his former pollster, Dick Morris, writes, “There he was on live television, those who have worked for him have come to know – the angry, sarcastic, snarling, self-righteous, bombastic bully, roused to a fever pitch….the volcanic rage beneath the surface of this would-be statesman.” Morris, who helped craft Clinton’s ’96 re-election strategy, experienced that behavior; in his political memoir, he recalled the time, way back in the Arkansas era, when he and Clinton had an argument in Clinton’s kitchen – whereupon the young governor grabbed Morris from behind, Morris slipped to the floor, Hillary had to help him get the idea.

Another supporter of the spontaneous wig-out theory is Jonathan Alter, the liberal commentator. Interviewed the other day at Brown University, and asked about the Fox incident, Alter said, “I thought he lost his temper. Yes, it rallies the Democratic base, but he talks a lot about bringing people together and trying to win the election without rubbing raw a lot of old wounds. He has a temper. He was right on the merits of (what he said), but ... if he had to do it over again, I don't think he would have insulted Chris Wallace that way.”

And Wallace himself buys this theory. In recent days he has said that the atmosphere in the studio stayed tense after the cameras were shut off, and that Clinton and his entourage were arguing about the encounter as they were leaving the premises.

Bill Clinton, shrewd but undisciplined. This hybrid theory posits that he arrived at Fox determined to put up his dukes if necessary, in a polite but firm manner befitting a former president, but that his inner demons got the better of him and he wound up going too far. Mark Davis, a Dallas columnist and radio host, writes: “I don't believe the former president sat down intending to lose that much cool. But I do believe he was spoiling for a degree of conflict that would bolster his anti-terror credentials and energize Democrats to ‘get tough’ with anyone doubting the party's national security credentials.”

In the end, what probably matters most is that, either by accident or design, Clinton cranked up base Democrats who have been thirsting for inspiration in an election year (maybe he also cranked up the conservatives, reminding them why they should vote GOP, but that’s another issue). Here’s the bottom line, according to one of my email pen pals: “Clinton is the only Democrat on the planet who could do what he did and get away with it. He's got the requisite gravitas. Besides, the Democrats have become a political party of geldings, scared (wit)less by anything even remotely GOP. I found that Clinton having the (guts) to successfully stare down Chris Wallace on his Fox home turf, was not only a good thing that could serve to energize his party, but a necessary move - one that was way overdue!”

By the way, here’s one last assessment of Clinton. Yesterday, Fox News chief Roger Ailes said: “I frankly think the assault on Chris Wallace is an assault on all journalists.”

That’s pretty rich, coming from Ailes – the same guy who, as Richard Nixon’s 1968 TV producer, pioneered the tactics of isolating a presidential candidate from the inconvenient questions of political journalists. Ailes kept his client in TV studios, where he staged Q&A sessions between Nixon and “average citizens,” a format that, in its time, was widely viewed as an assault on all journalists. Asked at the time why the journalists were being barred from the studio tapings, Ailes (as reported in The Selling of the President), replied, "(Screw) 'em. It's not a press conference...the press has no business on the set."


But enough about Clinton. Last I checked, he has a successor. And that president provided some interesting fodder of his own last Sunday; fortunately for him, Clinton got most of the attention.

In case you missed it, President Bush uttered a head-scratching remark that day on CNN. In the interests of full context, here was his exchange with Wolf Blitzer:

Q: “Let’s move on and talk a little bit about Iraq. Because this is a huge, huge issue, as you know, for the American public, a lot of concern that perhaps they are on the verge of a civil war--if not already a civil war. We see these horrible bodies showing up, tortured, mutilation. The Shia and the Sunni, the Iranians apparently having a negative role. Of course, al Qaeda in Iraq is still operating.”

BUSH: “Yes, you see you see it on TV, and that’s the power of an enemy that is willing to kill innocent people. But there’s also an unbelievable will and resiliency by the Iraqi people. Admittedly, it seems like a decade ago. I like to tell people when the final history is written on Iraq, it will look like just a comma because there is - my point is, there’s a strong will for democracy.”

Pick your way through the presidential verbiage, and ignore the fact that U.S. officials these days are openly questioning that supposedly “strong will for democracy,” and you can easily spot the key line: Bush’s contention that, when future Americans look in the rear-view mirror, the bloodshed in Iraq will be seen as “just a comma.”

Just a comma…not the kind of remark that is likely to comfort the families of slain and wounded U.S. soldiers. We can assume that he didn’t intend to convey that particular message. So we’re left to wonder, if he wasn’t trying to be dismissive of the current (and increasing) brutality in Iraq, how and why did he come up with that phrase? Well, here’s where things really get surreal:

Greg Mitchell at Editor & Publisher went googling, and came up with this conclusion: Bush was borrowing from a line that often appears in Christian teaching and sermons (“Don’t put a period where God puts a comma”), and Christian leaders in turn – I told you it gets surreal - seem to have adopted that line from…the late comedienne Gracie Allen, who is purported to have said, “Never place a period where God has placed a comma.”

Anyway…On more earthly ground, there are reports today that Bob Woodward’s new book, State of Denial, will expose efforts by Bush and his war team to cover up the true extent of the violence on the ground in Iraq. If true, Bush at some point may need to change his comma to an exclamation mark.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

If a Democratic president was contradicted by his own spy agencies, just imagine Karl Rove's TV ad

So this is the best that the Bush administration can do: Yesterday it selectively released a few pages from a national intelligence assessment of the war on terror – just 13 percent of the overall content – yet it turns out that even those cherry-picked passages seriously undercut the president’s core message for the ’06 congressional elections.

On behalf of his fellow Republicans seeking to retain control of the House and Senate, Bush has been arguing all month that he has made America safer. Yet here are passages in a document, vetted by his 16 spy agencies, which flatly declare that, in the wake of Bush’s war of choice in Iraq, America is actually becoming less safe. That’s not the kind of message that Karl Rove and his political lieutenants had in mind for the runup to November. (Bush spokesman Tony Snow, earlier today, sought to dismiss the intelligence document findings with a remark that I suppose he assumed would put the whole matter to rest: "Well, the president says we're winning.")

Obviously, there are a few lines in those three declassified pages that Bush can trumpet in his own defense. On the first page, for instance, the intelligence authorities write, “Greater pluralism and more responsive political systems in Muslim majority nations would alleviate some of the grievances jihadists exploit,” and on page two, they write, “Should jihadists leaving Iraq perceive themselves, and be perceived, to have failed, we judge fewer fighters will be inspired to carry the fight.” Taken together, those passages can be read by Bush supporters as a defense of democratization in the Middle East, and as a confirmation of the Bush view that we should stay in Iraq and defeat the terrorists so that fewer will be “inspired” in the future.

But these pages also contain sufficient new ammunition for the Democrats, as they seek to advance their argument that Bush has been failing as our national security steward. The best way to illustrate this point is to posit a hypothetical.

Just imagine what would happen if we had a Democratic president, on the eve of congressional elections, who was trying to fight global terrorism while bogged down in a foreign war of choice. Imagine that this Democratic president had been insisting for many months that he was making America safer. Then imagine that, under strong political pressure, he had been forced to release a few pages of the latest National Intelligence Estimate. And imagine that Karl Rove and his message masters sat down with those pages and a Magic Marker. Here’s the kind of TV ad that we might expect the Republicans to craft (and everything that appears between quotation marks is drawn from the declassified NIE pages):

Cue scary percussion background music. Shadowy images of terrorists move across screen in slow-motion. Voiceover narrator speaks, in serious but faintly mocking tone.

In a dangerous world, where enemies continue to threaten our family values and our very lives, where toughness and honesty is required here in the homeland, our Democrat president has been going around claiming that he is actually winning the war on the terror, and making us safer.

I want to believe in our president. I want to trust what he says. The lives of my children depend on that.

But can we really trust a Democrat president to tell us the truth in time of war -- when even the experts in his own administration, the foks on the front line of battle, now say that we are losing the global fight against the terrorists?

“…the global jihadist movement…is spreading and adapting…increasing in both number and geographic dispersion.”

And can we really trust a Democrat president and a Democrat Congress when they say that their war in Iraq is helping us to win that global fight?

“the Iraq jihad is shaping a new generation of terrorist leaders and operatives…the Iraq conflict has become the ‘cause celebre’ for jihadists, breeding a deep resentment of U.S. involvement in the Muslim world and cultivating supporters for the global jihadist movement.”

With the stakes so high, can we ever really afford to trust the Democrats…

…to keep us safe in time of war? When even their own intelligence experts don’t think so? Vote Republican on November 7. As if your life depended on it.


And that's just the stuff that can fit in 30 seconds. Remember, too, that this NIE report is actually the third official slapdown of the Bush administration in recent weeks. First, the Pentagon released a study on Sept. 1 (the eve of Labor Day weekend, when supposedly fewer people would notice) which concluded that the violence in Iraq is creating "the conditions that could lead to civil war" -- a stinging rebuke to Bush's recent dismissal of critics who, in his words, carp about "civil war this and civil war that." Second, the Republican-controlled Senate Intelligence Committee released a report on Sept. 8 stating that Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks -- undercutting the countless Bush administration insinuations.

So is there sufficient political ammo for the Democrats to at least make a case for Bush failure on the issue he has long deemed to be his strenth? It would appear so. Will they go for the jugular, the way a generation of Republican operatives has been taught to do? That's what even the most diehard Democratic voter wants to know.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

You ask why there's no third-party movement in America? Here's one reason

It’s the kind of story that routinely gets buried inside a newspaper: A judge throws a third-party candidate off a ballot, for arcane and technical reasons that thoroughly bore the average reader, who probably never heard of the candidate and probably wouldn’t vote for him anyway.

So it goes today, with the news that Carl Romanelli, a Green party candidate in the Pennsylvania Senate race, has been ejected from the November ballot because a judge says there are too many invalid petition signatures. To your average political pundit, Romanelli’s court defeat seems significant only because of how it affects the main event, the showdown between incumbent Republican Rick Santorum and Democratic challenger Bob Casey Jr. And the shorthand is that Casey benefits, because without Romanelli on the ballot in the nation’s marquee Senate race, liberals who deem Casey insufficiently liberal have no way to cast a protest vote – much to the dismay of the Santorum forces, who have labored to promote Romanelli’s candidacy.

Both major parties have long played that nakedly political game, of course. Santorum (now down by 12 points in a new poll released today) has been trying to boost the third-party guy in order to divide Democratic voters, not because he cares a whit about the principle of ballot access. And Democratic operatives have done the same thing. My favorite story is about Jack Kennedy’s first House campaign, in 1946. When a popular politician, city councilman Joseph Russo joined the race, Kennedy’s father promptly found a nobody named Joseph Russo and got him on the ballot, for the role purpose of dividing the Joseph Russo vote.

Anyway, I digress. The Romanelli story has important resonance beyond the Casey-Santorum connection. The bottom line is that it highlights the plight of third party candidates in general, and demonstrates the longstanding barriers erected by the two dominant political parties.

I am often asked, by people who are fed up with both the Democrats and Republicans, why there are so few alternatives, and “is there any chance we’ll have a third party to vote for?” The blunt answer is, dream on. One big reason is because the election laws in many states make it very difficult for new parties and candidates to gain any traction.

Case in point: Pennsylvania. I have yet to see, in any of the stories about Romanelli’s court loss, any mention of the fact that Pennsylvania’s ballot laws are among the most restrictive in America (according to the nonpartisan Ballot Access News, which specializes in such matters). Romanelli came up short in his push for valid ballot signatures – he needed 67,071 and he had 58,139 – but the real issue is why he needed to get so many.

That’s because of the way the state law is written. When somebody like Romanelli seeks to get on the ballot via petition signatures, here’s the magic number he must reach: two percent of all the votes that were cast in the previous election for the statewide candidate who got the highest vote tally. In this case, (ironically) the biggest vote-getter in 2004 was the Democratic candidate for treasurer, Bob Casey Jr. And the vote tally was especially high because 2004 was a presidential election year, which meant a much higher turnout than in a midterm election year. Two percent of the ’04 Casey vote equals 67, 071.

Romanelli’s 58, 319 is actually the highest valid signature tally of any third-party or independent candidate in America this year, except for two independent gubernatorial candidates in Texas, yet it’s still not deemed to be good enough (barring a theoretical final ruling by the state’s highest court). To put the Pennsylvania requirement into perspective, just check out some of the other states: Minnesota, for instance, requires only 2000 valid signatures. Ohio requires 5000. New Jersey requires 800.

Several years ago, in Pennsylvania, a gubernatorial Election Reform Task Force voted 12-0 to loosen the state ballot access requirements, concluding in a report that the law "be amended to provide greater access to the ballot for minor political parties and political bodies". One member stated, "I think it is time to have equal and fair standards for all candidates." But that time appears to have come and gone, because the GOP-dominated state legislature hasn’t budged (not that a Democratic majority legislature would have done any different).

The irony is that today’s two dominant parties actually benefited, in their infancy, from the dearth of ballot access restrictions. Back in the early nineteenth century, state governments welcomed all parties fairly equally. Scholars have written that the newly-created Republican party gained an immediate toehold in 1854 – winning more gubernatorial and House races than any other party – because there were no laws on the books inhibiting their access to the ballot box. That all came later, toward the end of the century, once the two parties were fully embedded.

These ballot laws remind me of beach access restrictions; folks who own property at the shore often try to bar the newbies. Carl Romanelli is hoping for a final reprieve from the state Supreme Court, but he’d be well advised not to pack his sun lotion.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Bill Clinton attacks the messenger

Bill Clinton’s meltdown yesterday on Fox News was fascinating. Clearly, the former president is extremely concerned that the ongoing debate over his anti-terrorist policies could seriously taint his legacy; and that any suggestions that he was soft on Osama bin Laden during the ‘90s might help George W. Bush and the GOP win the ’06 congressional elections.

If you haven’t heard about Clinton’s Sunday outburst – in his first appearance on Fox, he assailed host Chris Wallace for asking him some tough questions about his pre-9/11 terrorist policies – then you can read the transcript. Clinton is generally painted these days as a serene and happy warrior, but yesterday, after Wallace asked “why didn't you do more, connect the dots and put them out of business,” Clinton wigged out to the point where he even accused Wallace of smirking at him.

I don’t intend here to revisit whether Clinton deserves major or minor blame for failing to kill bin Laden during a decade when few Americans (and congressional Republicans) were focused on that goal; actually, I dealt with that issue here two weeks ago. Instead, just a few observations:

On the merits, Clinton was right when he complained that Wallace hasn’t asked Bush administration leaders equally tough questions about their own conduct. Clinton pointed out that al Qaeda’s ties to the attack on the U.S.S. Cole weren’t confirmed until the early days of the Bush era, yet Wallace has never asked Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, or Condolleezza Rice why no retaliatory actions were taken during their nine months in office prior to 9/11. Clinton went after Wallace on this: “You never asked that, did you?” And Wallace just dodged the question: “With Iraq and Afghanistan, there's plenty of stuff to ask.”

But Wallace did point out, accurately, that Clinton’s performance is critically assessed in both the bipartisan 9/11 Commission report and the new, widely praised book The Looming Tower. (According to the New York Times book review, author Lawrence Wright "argues that the Clinton administration’s reaction to the 1998 embassy bombings in Africa — launching cruise missiles at an Al Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan in a failed effort to kill Mr. bin Laden — helped turn the terrorist into a global celebrity and enabled him to mythologize himself further.") Yesterday, Clinton acknowledged to Wallace that his performance could have been better, simply because the record shows that he failed to kill bin Laden – but then he went back to attacking Wallace and Fox News.

I would bet that a lot of Democratic base voters, long frustrated by the timidity of party leaders, were thrilled yesterday that Clinton played smashmouth with the enemy. Here’s a sampling of what Clinton said, at various intervals:

"So you did Fox's bidding on this show. You did your nice little conservative hit job on me…You set this meeting up because you were going to get a lot of criticism from your viewers because Rupert Murdoch's supporting my work on climate change. And you came here under false pretenses and said that you'd spend half the time talking about -- you said you'd spend half the time talking about what we did out there to raise $7-billion-plus in three days from 215 different commitments. And you don't care…it set me off on a tear because you didn't formulate it in an honest way and because you people ask me questions you don't ask the other side…And you've got that little smirk on your face and you think you're so clever.”

For partisan Democrats, this is satisfying stuff, the equivalent of an end-zone dance by their favorite football star. Here’s the political problem, though: Whenever President Bush and his top surrogates react with hostility to questions, and seek to disparage the press questioners by impugning their motives, and seek to convey the impression that ideological enemies are plotting hit jobs against the administration, Democrats generally cite that behavior as further proof of the GOP’s mendacity. Yet here was Clinton doing much the same thing, trying to paint himself as a victim, and using that as a shield.

In other words, I don’t see how Bill Clinton’s outburst could possibly help his wife’s prospects as a presidential candidate. By losing his cool and lashing out, he basically sent the message that he remains a strongly polarizing political figure. Which is precisely why many Democrats remain worried about handing the ’08 nomination to Hillary Clinton. They are asking themselves whether independent swing voters, wearied by our polarized politics, are really enthused about a presidency that would inevitably spark an ideological refighting of the 1990s.


By the way, Clinton also appeared yesterday on Meet the Press, where he performed with greater equanimity. But I can't resist sharing this eye-rolling moment:

At one point, when the topic of Hillary's prospective candidacy came up, he said that "we shouldn't be talking about it or thinking about it now...I don't know if she's going to run, I--and I don't want to talk to her about it, and I don't want her thinking about it."

Does he actually expect people to believe that the Democrats' best strategist isn't talking presidential politics with the apparent Democratic presidential frontrunner? Hillary Clinton has already raised $50 million this year, most of which will not be needed for her Senate re-election race, and she has already hired ex-Democratic national chairman Terry McAuliffe as her fundraising vaccum-cleaner -- and we're supposed to believe that Bill doesn't want her to be thinking about 2008?

Maybe his new finger-wagging line should be, "I did not talk politics with that woman."

Sunday, September 24, 2006

National security and Howard Dean: villified and vindicated

My new-fangled biweekly column in the Philadelphia Inquirer's Sunday Currents section was launched today, and it seemed appropriate to goose the Democrats for their ongoing inability -- even with the wind at their backs -- to craft a consistent and resonant national security message. And I wrote the column even before Democratic chairman Howard Dean helpfully stepped forward to ratify my theme.

Last Friday, Dean and his GOP counterpart, Ken Mehlman, both wrote pieces for the Wall Street Journal's commentary page about the stakes in the '06 election. As conservative blogger Tom Bevan pointed out, Mehlman's first 642 words were about national security and the war on terror. And what did Dean do? He got around to the issue in his second-to-last paragraph, devoting 53 words to what is arguably the most important issue this autumn.

Yes, it can be argued that Mehlman's GOP rhetoric on national security is old and predictable and increasingly detached from Iraq realities. But at least it's a consistent, high-profile message, as opposed to Dean's disappearing act. On Friday Bevan wrote this, and I think he got it right:

"If Democrats want to take back control of Congress this November, one thing they cannot do is to let Republicans draw a clear line between the two parties on national security and to present voters with a distinct choice between who is more serious, more attentive, and more committed to protecting the country. They need to try and blur the line and muddy the choice by talking about national security (and Iraq) every chance they get. That's why Ken Mehlman must have been so happy to see his op-ed running alongside Howard Dean's this morning in one of the largest papers in the country. By essentially ignoring the issue of national security and the war on terror, Howard Dean helped draw exactly the contrast Republicans want (and need) most this year."

And one prominent liberal blogger's verdict on Dean was basically no different. Kevin Drum at The Washington Monthly, noting that Dean devoted most of his space to the standard Democratic domestic issues (stagnant wages, health care, higher taxes on the rich) proceeded to eviscerate the guy. Speaking directly to Dean, he wrote:

"Do you really think (the Wall Street Journal) is the place for a thousand words of pitchfork-waving, tax-cut-hating, populist agit-prop? Even if you couldn't bring yourself to write about national security, don't you think you could have picked a slightly better approach to win the hearts and minds of the conservative business titans who read the Journal? Know your audience. This is Persuasion 101. Can't anybody play this game anymore?"

Which is what, in my print column, I was wondering as well.


But let's cut Dean a break on one topical matter:

It was hard to miss the big weekend news about the war in Iraq. It seems that, yet again, there is fresh evidence flatly contradicting President Bush's assertion that the war, and the removal of Saddam Hussein, has made America safer. It appears that some authoritative voices are now saying that, contrary to Bush's '06 election argument, the American invasion and occupation have actually made the world less safe, by spawning a new generation of Islamic radicals and ratcheting up the post-9/11 terrorist threat.

Is this just another Bush-hating argument from liberals and Democrats (or, as the GOP message shop prefers to call them, "Defeatocrats")?

Nope. This is the consensus view of the 16 federal spy agencies that work for President Bush. As reported here, a classified report containing this finding, a National Intelligence Estimate, was completed during the spring, and constitutes the first comprehensive assessment by those agencies since the Irar war was launched. Howard Dean, as a Democratic presidential candidate, was pilloried in December 2003 when he said the world wasn't necessarily safer in the wake of Saddam's capture. Now it appears that Bush's own intelligence authorities see it the same way.

One might wonder how Bush defenders could explain away this one, but Al Haig did give it a try this morning. (You might remember Al Haig; he was Reagan's first secretary of state.) Haig went on CNN and said that the story was "written especially for the Democratic Party." Which is news to me, because I had no idea that Dean was so tight with the 16 spy agencies that they would bend their views to accomodate him.